Will virtual reality go mainstream with tech giants in game?

Chinese company joins Samsung, Sony, Facebook and Microsoft in pushing frontiers of experience. But will everyone one day have a headset at home, or will professionals such as marketers and engineers be biggest users of VR?

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 30 July, 2015, 9:31am
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 July, 2015, 9:31am

You slip a smartphone into a pair of clunky goggles and place them on your head. The room around you dissolves and you're standing on a grassy field behind a line-up of American football players. You hear the crowd's cheers.

It's time to play football. You control the play with your eyes, deciding when to snap and where to throw. This virtual reality (VR) program is not a video game. It's a football training tool.

The tool is among a tidal wave of VR programs being developed for introduction to consumers in the next year. Military forces already use VR in some training exercises, but the technology has potential uses in other areas, such as entertainment and home improvement. Architects, for instance, can create life-sized virtual models of buildings rather than relying on traditional physical models.

Several companies gathered at the recent Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3, in Los Angeles to show off their products. A few are being sold already, such as the US$200 Samsung Gear VR headset, which is compatible only with Samsung smartphones. Other devices and programs are still in production as developers apply the final touches.

HTC will begin selling its virtual reality headset, Vive by Valve, by the end of this year, and Oculus will follow suit with the Oculus Rift early next year. Sony is expected to release its own headset, Project Morpheus for the PlayStation 4, around the same time. Prices have not been announced for these devices, but analysts predict they'll be several hundred US dollars. Shenzhen company Virtual Reality is also producing its own VR goggles, which will go on sale for 1,900 yuan (HK$2,400) at a VR gaming centre due to open in Shanghai in September.

Virtual reality programs are now directed towards hardcore gamers, a demographic that skews heavily towards males under 35 years old. In addition, more sophisticated VR programs require a game console, which not everyone has.

This isn't the first time virtual reality has caused ripples of excitement in the tech community, nor is it the first time doubts have surrounded its success. Twenty years ago, scientists and gamers were overflowing with the hype surrounding virtual reality, but that excitement eventually ebbed. The technology simply hadn't caught up with the grand ideas.

This time around, developers feel optimistic that technological development has finally aligned with the ambition of the 1990s.

When Facebook reeled in Oculus, one of the biggest fish in VR, with a US$2 billion acquisition in March last year, the deal was a "bugle call" for the industry, says Skip Rizzo, a research professor at the Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California. Oculus had humble beginnings, raising money from online donors. But under the ownership of Facebook, Oculus now hopes to push VR into the mainstream marketplace.

After the Oculus-Facebook deal, "companies and devices began popping up everywhere", Rizzo says. "It was like the Wild West."

Those start-ups will continue to appear in the next two years, which Rizzo predicts will yield both wreckage and survivors.

Device prices start high, but Rizzo is convinced that costs will drop in the next few years, especially with virtual reality applications that rely on mobile devices rather than expensive, bulky consoles.

"Everyone will have a headset in their home," Rizzo says. "They'll be like toasters."

Not everyone is convinced.

"With virtual reality, developers are making a very big leap," says Brian Blau, a research director in personal technologies at Gartner, an IT research and advisory firm. "Developers may make killer apps that draw people in, or they might not."

Raymond Wong, a product analyst for Mashable, says: "I'm not sure if people want to put these goggles on at home. It's a very isolating experience."

Indeed, total immersion in a world that occupies most of the users' senses could have many unexpected effects.

Regis Kopper, director of the Duke immersive Virtual Environment at Duke University, is concerned with how people make sense of their physical surroundings in a virtual space. "When you wear a head-mounted display, you don't have your own body," he says. "In the physical world, your body is an anchor, and you lose that in virtual reality. How do you recreate touching your leg in virtual reality?"

It's one of many big questions VR researchers must confront. Simulation sickness is another. While many users' senses are occupied by the virtual world, other senses are still in the physical world. This discrepancy can cause a motion sickness similar to the feeling of reading a book in a car.

Social interaction in virtual reality is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, networked avatars allow us to 'be with' anyone, anywhere, anytime. On the other hand, as we rely more and more on virtual interactions, the very nature of what it means to be social changes.
Jeremy Bailenson, Stanford

Researchers are investigating sometimes unexpected ways to combat simulation sickness. Scientists at Purdue, for instance, found that adding a 3D nose to VR programs reduced symptoms of sickness.

Wong sees more potential for VR in commercial industries such as marketing or engineering.

Research has already pointed to VR's advantages in the medical field, Rizzo says. Once interactive intelligent agents - virtual characters - are advanced enough to respond like people, surgeons in training may be able to practice procedures with these characters. VR simulations could also be used as a way to distract patients from painful procedures, possibly becoming an alternative to pain medicine. Education may also benefit from advances in virtual reality. If a student struggles with conceptualising an atomic structure, for instance, he could plop on the headset and be immersed within a virtual atom.

As companies sell, developers invent and gamers play, one philosophical uncertainty looms over the industry: how will virtual reality alter human interaction? It's a tricky question.

"Social interaction in virtual reality is a double-edged sword," says Jeremy Bailenson, director of Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab. "On the one hand, networked avatars allow us to 'be with' anyone, anywhere, anytime. On the other hand, as we rely more and more on virtual interactions, the very nature of what it means to be social changes."

Different media powered by wireless connections have already transformed certain types of communication. Several researchers say virtual reality is just another medium.

"But since it will engage more human senses, there is the potential for more problems," Kopper says. "People might not be inclined to socialise as much. They might get drawn into the VR simulation."

David Whittinghill, an assistant professor at Purdue, isn't convinced. He predicts that simulation sickness will limit how long one person can stay within a virtual world. In that sense, real life is still more appealing than virtual life.

For many virtual reality developers, though, the utility of VR technologies outweighs the risk of unpleasant reactions. Many companies are also playing with augmented reality. Virtual reality immerses users in an entirely constructed world which users have the ability to interact with, but augmented reality blends virtual life and real life. Developers can create digital images - something like holograms - that blend in with the physical world. Users can interact with these digital objects.

The biggest name in augmented reality is Microsoft HoloLens, which shows users holograms within the real world. HoloLens is still very much in its prototype phase, however, and consumers won't see it on the market for a while.

Google has already introduced its own virtual reality headset that won't burn a console-sized hole in your pocket. The headset is called Google Cardboard, and it's just that - a device that connects some of the most advanced technology with one of the world's most basic materials.

The headset is delivered to you as a sheet of cardboard, which you then fold up like a piece of origami. Strap in your smartphone and voila - you have a fully operational VR headset, ranging in price from US$15 to US$32.

The only problem? "It's the worst VR experience you can try," says Wong.

It certainly doesn't reach the technological heights of Oculus Rift or even the Samsung Gear. But for the curious and impatient who don't have a ton of cash, it's a start.

Tribune News Service

For this story and more, read The Review, published with the Sunday Morning Post, on August 2